Teen diets heavily influenced by peers and parents

January 7, 2019

Teenagers look to those around them to form their diet patterns, and for low-income African American teenagers in particular, parental involvement and monitoring is key to making good choices.

Adolescent diets often leave something to be desired when it comes to meeting national dietary guidelines, but for low-income African American teenagers, poor quality diets are particularly prevalent and can lead to lifelong chronic disease, according to a new report.

Diet habits established during the adolescent years often continue on to adulthood, so a good foundation is key to a healthy life. Poor-quality diets in the developmental years can lead to chronic obesity and other health problems. A new study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, sought to examine how parental beliefs about nutrition, perceived peer eating behaviors, and parental monitoring of adolescent food choices affected diet quality in African American teenagers, and whether age and gender play a role.

Researchers used data on 216 African American teenagers and their caregivers from a low-income urban community to complete the study and based diet assessments on the 2010 Healthy Eating Index. In many of these communities, residents live in “food deserts,” with a lack of grocery stores and access to healthy foods. This can make developing a good food foundation difficult, especially when less healthy convenience foods are readily available. The research team found that better diet scores were recorded when teenagers had better parental support and monitoring of food choices, and when teenagers perceived healthy eating habits among their peers. There were no differences among different ages or genders.

The report affirms previously held theories that teenagers look to their friends and family when it comes to making food choices. Margaret Wrobleski, PhD, MPH, RDN, LDN, a consultant research dietician at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and owner of Downeast Consulting, led the study and notes that the findings may not be applicable across the board.

“This study focused exclusively on low-income, African American adolescents in inner-city neighborhoods in Baltimore, Maryland, and the findings should not be applied to all adolescents. Dietary habits often differ across ethnicities, geographic regions, and vary by cultural food traditions. The built environment may also affect diet quality,” Wrobleski notes. “The families participating in this study resided in urban food deserts with limited access to healthy foods, and often had to shop at corner convenience stores to purchase groceries.”

For some populations, like the one involved in this study, though, the report highlights the impact of relationships and perceptions on diet choices.

“Perceived social norms for healthy eating habits among friends and family may positively influence adolescent eating behavior. Consistent with predictions from ecological and social-cognitive theories, adolescents’ dietary behaviors reflect their perceptions of the social environment,” Wrobleski says. “This study found that adolescent diet quality was positively associated with the adolescent’s perceptions of parents’ positive nutrition beliefs, parental monitoring of adolescent dietary behavior, and friends appearing to engage in healthy eating behaviors. The relationships reported in this study describe some of the interpersonal social influences that may improve diet quality among nutritionally vulnerable low-income African American adolescents and inform future nutrition research.”

Wrobleski says teenagers may shape their eating habits by modeling the food beliefs and behaviors of their caregivers and peers.

“Among low-income, African American adolescents in poor urban communities, we found that parent’s positive attitudes about healthy eating and paying attention to their adolescent’s dietary behavior was related to the adolescent consuming more healthful foods. Improved diet quality was also related to adolescents’ perception that their friends and peers engaged in healthy eating behavior,” she says, adding there is a message in this research for clinicians. “Pediatricians may choose to explore strategies to support healthful dietary behaviors via social support networks among friends and within family groups to positively impact adolescent nutritional status.”

Wrobleski says she hopes pediatricians will take this message into practice.

 

“These findings imply that perceived social norms for healthy dietary behavior among family and friends might positively influence adolescent eating habits,” she says. “The results of this study may motivate clinicians to promote positive dietary behavior change strategies that target the social influencers within adolescents’ friend and family networks.”

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